PITTSBURGH — Seated in front of the floodlit, intricately sculpted facade of their Hindu temple in Penn Hills, Pa., hundreds of people recently looked into the night sky, their faces glowing with the colors of fireworks bursting overhead to mark Diwali, a sacred festival of lights marking a god’s victory over darkness and ignorance.
Built in the mid-1970s and based on a much larger shrine in India, the Pittsburgh version is renowned for its pioneering role in re-creating on American soil the architectural grandeur and sacred sense of a major shrine in Hinduism’s native land.
Being able to make the regular trip there from his home in suburban Pittsburgh is so important to Srini Bellamkonda that the software engineer — who was transferred by his company to the U.S. from his native India in 2001 and came to Pittsburgh in 2004 — hasn’t sought transfers anywhere else since.
In fact, he knows of fellow Indian immigrants who left Pittsburgh for jobs in Texas or Florida — only to return.
“This is important to us, definitely,” said Bellamkonda, 40, after he helped a neighbor’s young son light a sparkler to celebrate Diwali. “They might not like the weather so much (but) the temple is one reason why people want to stick to Pittsburgh.”
Of all the Pittsburgh area’s immigrant groups, its 10,000-strong Indian-born community has made the most visible imprint on the city’s diverse religious scene. Many immigrated since the 1960s to work as engineers in corporations such as Westinghouse and in the city’s academic and medical centers.
Indian-Americans have organized two major Hindu temples and other smaller Hindu institutions, as well as a Jain shrine, a Sikh temple and small Christian congregations, including a Catholic group worshipping in the ancient Syro-Malabar tradition. Muslim immigrants from India are also active in the region’s mosques.
Earlier in the Diwali festival at the Sri Venkateswara Temple, the full, sensory worship experience of Hinduism was much in evidence. Priests chanted in urgent tones to the backdrop of bells, drumbeats and declamatory notes from wind instruments known as nadaswarams.
Worshippers prayed before the idol of the deity to whom the temple is dedicated — Sri (Lord) Venkateswara, an incarnation of Vishnu, surrounded by consorts Lakshmi and Bhoodevi, goddesses of wealth and the earth. The deities were surrounded by such gifts as floral garlands, mango leaves and rice.
From the temple’s modest origins, “it’s grown, grown and we have a lot of devotees from all over the country now,” current temple Chairman Ashok Sarpeskar said.